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a nation's paper

As Black History Month begins, a look back at the decades of controversy over a Black neighbourhood in Nova Scotia – and how The Globe first justified its demolition and sought justice for its ex-residents

This is an excerpt from A Nation’s Paper: The Globe and Mail in the Life of Canada, a collection of history essays from Globe writers past and present, coming this fall from Signal/McClelland & Stewart.

Beatrice Wilkins’s childhood home was steps from the Bedford Basin at the tip of the Halifax peninsula. She remembers spending summers fishing for eels, lobsters and mussels, and playing hopscotch and double Dutch with the neighbourhood kids. Gifted with an angelic voice, Wilkins loved to sing at church on Sunday and in school concerts. At the annual Christmas show, the audience had a chance to clap for the singer they liked most and, year after year, the applause for Wilkins was deafening.

Growing up in the historically Black community of Africville was comfortable, she recalls. “You could knock on anybody’s door when you came home from school if you were hungry,” says the septuagenarian, now living in Dartmouth. “The community was more than accepting – they were nurturers.”

At the time of Wilkins’s upbringing in the 1950s and 1960s, The Globe and Mail had a different way of describing Africville: “a wretched black ghetto,” “often awash with piles of rotting garbage,” “a Negro slum.” There was no acknowledgment of the bonds between family and neighbours that were so central to Wilkins’s childhood recollections.

In 1967, on Canada’s 100th birthday, the newspaper sent a columnist and photographer to capital cities across the country and published their dispatches in a special centenary edition. While in Halifax, a Globe writer chronicled his time in Africville as if he were on safari, visiting a primitive civilization:

“My fellow Canadians, it is strange to bump along the waterfront over tracks and through potholes until, near the city dump, you come on a place of shacks on a hillside where the children run for shelter when they even see a car slow down. We got lots of pictures of them fleeing from us, pushing old bicycles and ruined baby carriages used as playthings, scuttling like scared squirrels while their mothers rapped on windows and urged them to run faster – lots of those pictures, but only one of children stock still, a second before they broke and ran. But Halifax is trying. Many people of Africville have been induced to move to bright public housing. The old ones generally refuse. All that can be done is to wait until they die off.”

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Globe photographer Erik Christensen's images of Africville ran with a patronizing report calling the area 'wretched' and a 'slum.'Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

At the time, there was little room for nuance or introspection in the government’s pursuit of the liberal welfare state, which was greatly aided by the mainstream media.

Under the banner of progressivism, Canada was on a mission to clear out so-called ghettos and liberate their residents from poverty, but without taking responsibility for how the state had contributed to the historical injustices that had created those communities in the first place. And they, as well as the press, gave residents little voice during this process.

Perhaps nowhere in Canada was this seen more starkly than in Africville, where between 1964 and 1967, about 400 residents were displaced from the 12-acre settlement that had been an established Black community with a rich history and culture for more than a century. The Globe was an active participant in shaping the narrative around Africville and justifying its razing.

In the decades after Africville was cleared out, the politics of the time changed and so did the way The Globe wrote about the community.

For the most part, this shift – in which former residents were interviewed and given agency, where the relocation project and the decades of neglect of the community that preceded it were described as racist – only occurred in the pages of the newspaper after a political shift among the country’s white establishment. But by then, so much had been lost.

Africville residents chat at a dining-room table in the 1960s. Coverage of the neighbourhood from this era seldom acknowledged the positive experiences of Black Nova Scotians who lived here. Bob Brooks, Nova Scotia Archives
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An 1835 watercolour by Robert Petley depicts Nova Scotia’s Black Loyalists, people who left the United States for supporting Britain in the American Revolution.Library and Archives Canada

The history of Black settlement in Canada began in the mid-18th century, when British and American settlers brought hundreds of enslaved Africans to Nova Scotia. The Black people who built much of Halifax lived on the northeast tip of the peninsula, in what later became known as Africville. By the mid-1800s, Africville was an established Black settlement made up of Africans who had escaped slavery in Jamaica (known as “Maroons”), refugees from the War of 1812 and formerly enslaved people whose families had been in Canada for decades or longer. They made a living fishing and farming. By 1849 they had built a church, and by 1883 they had a school.

Remember Africville, a 1991 documentary by filmmaker Shelagh Mackenzie, features CBC interviews with former residents, footage from a 1989 conference about Africville, as well as photographs and home movies shot by community members.

Those personal images, in particular, offer a counternarrative to how Africville was understood by most Canadians. They depict detached homes, much like the ones that dotted the rest of the Halifax peninsula, painted in vibrant colours. Women in sunglasses show off tailored dresses before heading to church services. Children play baseball together. Bare-torsoed men flex and grin for the camera before taking a dip in the Bedford Basin.

But throughout the 1950s and 1960s, The Globe’s coverage of Africville drew mostly from the perspectives of officials – politicians, bureaucrats, social workers – rather than the residents themselves. The joys of Africville’s residents, their culture and motivations and bonds, were never explored.

In the first half of the 20th century, local government made clear that Africville was not considered an official part of the city, denying it many of the basic services offered to other residents, such as running water and garbage pickup and, later, paved roads and electricity. It also built a railway extension that cut through the community; residents who lived beside the tracks could stick their arms out their windows and touch the high-speed trains as they zoomed by.

When a French ship carrying munitions and a Norwegian ship carrying humanitarian supplies collided near Halifax in 1917, the resulting blast destroyed much of the city’s north end – as well as Africville situated above it. The damaged swaths of Halifax were rebuilt, but Africville did not see most of the federal funding.

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A woman watches children climb a path in Africville circa 1965.Bob Brooks, Nova Scotia Archives

In Remember Africville, residents candidly describe the ways in which neglect of their community turned to negligence: “Our folks went to the city to find out about the roads, the lights and the garbage and what’s the use? It made no difference,” said resident Leon Steed during a video interview conducted in the late 1960s. “If the city had took care of this place instead of neglecting it, it would’ve been a lot better than what it is today.”

Because ambulances would not come to Africville, Wilkins’s mother had to deliver one of her own children – Wilkins’s youngest sibling – herself at home. She cut the baby’s umbilical cord, carried the newborn out of their house on Forrester Street, flagged down a police car that was patrolling the city dump, and got a lift to the hospital – just in time to deliver the placenta.

There was an incentive for the state to contribute to Africville’s decay by withholding municipal services: It helped frame the bulldozing of the community and relocation of residents as acts of liberation.

The Globe’s coverage bolstered that argument, with quotations from provincial politicians who said razing Africville would “bring about a great transformation,” and news pieces based more on conjecture than on facts.

In one 1959 story, for example, a Globe reporter describes youth who allegedly threw stones at a freight train that passed through Africville as part of the community’s “bad element,” and speculates they did so to protest the replacement of coal-fired engines with diesel locomotives.

He alleges that “Negro juveniles” stole from coal trains to fuel their homes, but there are no interviews with the youth or any other residents of Africville. Nor is there an acknowledgment of how the municipality failed to provide electricity to the community.

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Halifax city officials, one with a rolled-up plan of Africville, visit a house in the community before its demolition.Bob Brooks, Nova Scotia Archives

Other stories from that era discuss how Halifax employers and landlords didn’t want to give jobs or housing to Africville residents because of their perceived lack of hygiene. But those stories don’t ascribe any responsibility to the City of Halifax for the polluting industries placed in or beside the community – an open-pit dump, a fertilizer plant, an abattoir and a prison – or the lack of running water in homes.

Laying this groundwork in the years leading up to the razing of Africville was key to selling the public on the idea of slum clearance as “urban renewal,” explains University of British Columbia historian Tina Loo. “There’s this notion of: modern cities don’t have slums, they don’t have racial segregation,” she says.

In the U.S., racial segregation was rampant and seen as “the bogeyman,” she says. The civil rights movement there was met with violent resistance by the state. White, liberal Canadians liked to think of themselves as part of a more humane society, one where integration was the goal, even if it was a process navigated clumsily and against the wishes of Africville’s residents.

Of course, the relocation efforts weren’t just about “rescuing” residents of Africville, but about the city acquiring an extremely valuable parcel of land, as a Globe journalist wrote in a 1962 story: “Roughly bounded by the Halifax shipyards, the harbor and several industrial developments on what used to be the city dump, Africville would be valuable for factory buildings as well as for construction of an express highway now in preliminary planning stages.”

Speaking at the 1989 conference on Africville, Rev. Donald Skeir agreed: “This was prime land. That was important land. That kind of land was not for Black people.”

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Ruth Johnson, a former Africville resident, pauses for prayer during a ceremony naming it a National Historic Site. The plaque explains how the area 'speaks to the enduring significance of community.'Scott Munn

It’s not like there weren’t critics of these processes at the time. Jane Jacobs famously critiqued slum clearance in her seminal 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, condemning the ways in which people like those who lived in Africville were pushed about, expropriated, and uprooted much as if they were the subjects of a conquering power.” She pointed out there was an irony to municipalities trying to clear slums in the name of urban renewal, when the housing projects they moved residents into only “became worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness.”

Indeed, Wilkins’s family was moved into a housing project in Mulgrave Park, while many close neighbours and family friends were relocated to Uniacke Square, another project. Others scattered to communities farther away, outside of central Halifax. The wide-open fields of Africville that provided spaces for children to play were replaced by concrete. Residents who previously lived in mortgage-free homes went on welfare for the first time to pay their new housing costs. After the relocation, the only chances Wilkins had to reconvene with the community were at Sunday services at Seaview United Baptist Church in Africville, until that too was bulldozed.

Laura Howe, speaking at the 1989 conference, described how her teenage son came home in the middle of the night and told her the church was gone: “That was done in the early hours of the morning. It seemed to me such a cruel thing to do to a church.”

In an editorial published at the end of 1968, The Globe cites the dissolution of Africville as evidence of triumph: “Neither Africville nor the segregation remains. As we passed into the more socially conscious era of the 1960s, Nova Scotia began its earnest plodding along the path toward civil rights.”

In 1995, Eddie Carvery speaks to reporters in Halifax about his camping out on the Africville site in Seaview Park to protest for compensation for former residents. He was still there when photographers visited in 2010 and 2020. Len Wagg/Halifax Chronicle-Herald; Paul Darrow and Carolina Andrade/The Globe and Mail

If razing Africville and dispersing its residents around Nova Scotia was meant to paint over an embarrassing chapter in Canadian history, it wasn’t long before chips began to appear on the surface of this attempt at “renewal.” In 1968, the Black Panthers arrived in Halifax and began empowering former residents to speak up about the injustices they’d faced. A pivotal meeting took place among Black Nova Scotians, who formed the political organization the Black United Front, which gave them a powerful voice.

By the early 1970s, the Africville relocation project had been transformed from “a symbol of civic and humanitarian progress to a symbol of Black consciousness and white racism,” wrote Richard Bobier in a 1995 academic paper. He credits this shift in part to a change in the broader political climate across the continent, a rise in class consciousness and the emergence of the “New Left” – sociologists who explored power relations and gave voice to the laypeople they studied rather than speaking on their behalf.

That shift can be tracked in the pages of The Globe, where, in 1972, a story was boldly headlined: “Africville relocation called a social failure.” In tone and sourcing, it veered dramatically from the newspaper’s previous coverage of Africville. But critically, it was based on a report that had been commissioned by the province and authored by academics at Dalhousie University that criticized, in detail, the way the relocation was carried out. The story gave Black people a voice, but it was through these academics.

The report polled former residents about their experience, finding that 73 per cent missed their lives in Africville “very much.” Of those surveyed, 95 per cent said the city gained the most from the relocation and they gained the least. The report quoted Black leaders who described the relocation as “racial warfare” and took a sharply critical lens to the way city officials broke their promises to former residents regarding financial assistance and other supports.

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Irvine Carvery, shown at the Africville museum in 2020, spoke with The Globe for a 1989 feature on the fate of former residents.Carolina Andrade/The Globe and Mail; Globe archives

By the 1980s and 1990s, the language The Globe used to describe Africville had evolved. Earlier in the century reporters had described the place as a slum or shantytown; later, they attributed those descriptions to city council or planners at the time. As respected human-rights groups and academics acknowledged the ways in which residents had been failed by the state, and politicians offered mea culpas, The Globe quoted them. Most importantly, the paper began including voices of the residents themselves.

In 1989, Halifax correspondent Kevin Cox attended the same conference featured in Remember Africville. He quoted several former residents about the discrimination they faced and the struggles they still battled because of the relocation.

“My strongest memory is of my grandmother crying; she didn’t want to leave and she was never happy after she left,” said Irvine Carvery, president of the Africville Genealogy Society. “The relocation took five years minimum from the lives of the older ones.”

Cox also included comments from Skeir, who was critical of the Africville relocation planners. “[They] overlooked the fact that black people are human beings,” he said. “We can think and we can feel and there is no place like home no matter what condition it may be in.”

Notably, Cox didn’t seek rebuttals or counternarratives from officials – a major turn in the narrative of Africville as portrayed in the pages of the paper.

Later, in a 1990 story about a touring exhibition on Africville, The Globe’s Stephen Godfrey wrote about the “racist attitudes toward Halifax blacks” in Africville, and described the media having “signalled a change in attitude toward Africville.” He even shares an unsavoury quote from the Toronto Star to illustrate his point – but never calls out his own paper for its failings.

As a former resident of Africville, Wilkins was pleased to see the media eventually change its tune, but wondered why none were brave enough to give her family or neighbours a voice when Africville still existed, when it could have been saved.

“They were people on the bandwagon trying to right a wrong,” she says. “They left us in a foreign land, basically. They took us from what we knew. We don’t know how we would’ve flourished in our community.”

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a reporter at The Globe and Mail, focusing on race and ethnicity issues. She is based in Halifax.

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